Tucked up in India’s far northeast, the Himalayan state of Sikkim is a unique area with Tibetan villages set below the snow-capped Himalayas. The world’s 3rd highest peak, Mt. Kanchenjunga (8586m), lies on the border between Sikkim and Nepal. We trekked to Goecha La (Pass) for a look at this mighty giant.
The high altitude, eight-day trek to Goecha La begins in the small Buddhist village of Yuksom. We spent a day visiting the Buddhist monuments and temples in this cute mountain village (For that story click here). The next day, we left Yuksom in the morning and hiked on steep trails through a dense rain forest filled with ferns, bamboo and unusual-looking alpine trees trees. In one area there were wild raspberries right next to the trail. The berries were ripe, so we ate a few handfuls each. They were delicious.
As we climbed higher the second day, we began to see rhododendrons that were starting to bloom in a variety of colours. The trail was busy not only with hikers, but also with yaks and mules carrying trekking and camping supplies. Yaks can only tolerate the cool air in the high alpine, so they’re not a common site in other parts of India.
On the second night we stayed in an old, deserted Tibetan village. In 1950s and 60s large groups of Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, fled Tibet for India traveling through this part of Sikkim. Some of those migrants settled in Sikkim, and established villages. In 1977, the Indian government declared this area a National Park. Because of this, the villagers had to, once again, leave their homes and move further south. Many of their old homes are still standing and the kitchens are now used by guiding companies. In the village is a small Buddhist Gompa and a few chortens sitting on the hilltops with mountain views all around. When we arrived, it was very cloudy and misty adding an eeriness to the abandoned village. The next morning though, we woke to an amazing view of the sun’s first rays shining over the campsite.
That day, we hiked higher and higher through rhododendron forests and caught a few glimpses of the high mountains above. We camped that night on a large, high elevation plateau, surrounded by Himalayan giants. The flat ground on the plateau made a perfect cricket pitch for the porters and muleteers. The next morning, we woke early and hiked to Dzong La Lookout, to see the sunrise. It was our first view of the mighty Kanchenjunga and the neighboring Himalayan peaks. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise behind the ridge and alpenglow on Kanchenjunga’s snowy peak.
It rains a lot in this part of Sikkim. We usually woke to a beautiful blue sky, but by 9 am, the clouds rolled in to cover our views. Sometimes though, the cloud formations made dramatic pictures as they rose up from the valleys below. The other thing that comes with all the rain is moss. One forest we walked though felt like a spooky movie with the rhododendrons, pines and boulders covered in thick green moss.
The next two days were spent walking up a long, flat valley with a view of Kanchenjunga’s ridge in the distance. We camped one night at a site called Lamuney which means ‘long mani wall’. Mani walls are Buddhist structures composed of flat stones with the mantra ‘Om mani padme hum’ engraved on them. Beside camp is an old mani wall and two chortens with white oval rocks on top. The guides like to joke that these rocks are dinosaur eggs. They make a magnificent contrast to the tall glacier-covered Mt. Pandim, high above.
Finally, on day 6, we were going to get a close-up look at Kanchenjunga. We woke early (3:30am), hoping for a clear, starry sky but unfortunately it was different from the previous mornings as it was very cloudy. We weren’t sure that it would even be worthwhile to go to the lookout, but of course we did. We hiked up and up, through the moraine left behind from a receding glacier. After 1 hr 20 min we arrived at Goecha La. We had amazing views of the mountains on either side of Kanchenjunga with their lovely, snow capped peaks. High mountains like Kanchenjunga, however, are often shrouded in clouds as they produce their own weather. Today, Kanchenjunga was staying true to this by hiding behind a wall of clouds. Only small sections of the vast mountain would poke through the clouds for a few seconds before a new cloud rolled in. After 6 days, we were disappointed and unlucky.
Walking back to camp we passed a calm mountain tarn reflecting the tall mountains on its flat surface. There were dozens of the gorgeous blue Grandalas and the shy White-Capped Redstarts, so the morning ended on a high note. The mountains are full of wild life such as blue sheep and the incredibly shy Himalayan Tahr, but they were more difficult to spot.
We still had another couple of hours to hike and the sky looked threatening. Once we finally arrived at our next campsite and got into our tent, it started to pour. It continued to rain steadily for the next 24 hours. The hike out the next day was wet and muddy with low, thick clouds and poor visibility all along the valley. We felt lucky to have seen as much as we did. The thick clouds mean that Kanchnjunga was not letting herself be seen from any lookout today. We later learned that Cyclone Fani was off the coast of West Bengal and was most likely the cause of the severe amounts of rain we had.
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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